February 9, 2023


America Must Stand with Ukraine

By: Rodney Rios

After a year of war between Ukraine and Russia, one of the most crucial questions in American foreign policy is what is our aim in Ukraine? The goal of American policy in Ukraine should be the defeat of the Russian army and its expulsion from all Ukrainian territory in the shortest time possible.

      As the war enters its second year, some critical questions regarding American policy in Ukraine exist. For example, some on the Right and the Left have been questioning support for Ukraine in increasing numbers. The arguments are varied. They range from apologetics in favor of Russia to saying the West provoked Moscow. Another variant says the United States should should not be too involved since there are other, more pressing, national security concerns at stake or because Russia is much more willing to invest time and resources for victory than the United States. Most opposition to America supporting Ukraine is the fear of wasting resources. This can be summed up in opposing America’s tendency to get involved in “forever wars“.

      The first point is that a war is not endless if it is won. Nevertheless, there are interesting and valid points in these arguments. Instead of ignoring these critiques, interventionists should discuss the merits and explain how Ukraine’s victory is a good policy for America’s interests. One of the lessons from the U.S. failure in the Vietnam War was the development of the “restrictive use-of-force doctrine” by former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Gen. Colin Powell during the Reagan era as a response to avoiding such a failure as Vietnam. This doctrine believed that intervention should be based on using “overwhelming force on behalf of vital interests and clearly defined and achievable political-military objectives, and it insisted on reasonable assurance of enduring public and congressional support.”

Moreover, it is an incorrect view to compare the Afghan and Iraq wars with the Russo-Ukrainian War. For starters, the war in Ukraine is not the same as those other conflicts since those were not conventional armies fighting with traditional methods against each other. Iraq and Afghanistan were wars of occupation and insurgency, with different interconnecting religious and tribal factors at play. In the case of Ukraine, it is a nation-state against a nation-state, with the use of conventional forces, tactics, and technology by both sides.

As demonstrated by Ukraine’s successes during its Fall offensive in 2022, in which Ukraine dealt serious defeats to the Russian army, Ukraine can defeat the Russian military with adequate support. Though, as has been discussed by Gen. Bing West, there is room for improvement in U.S. strategy. Regardless, policymakers should be worried about the rising skepticism over Ukraine in some areas of American politics. One way to prevent the misconception of the conflict as an “endless war” is by seeking to end the war as quickly as possible and communicating American strategy clearly.

American support should seek an unmistakable victory for Ukraine. In other words, the defeat of the Russian army and not just a stalemate or frozen conflict. This does not mean that America should seek regime change in Russia. On the contrary, the policy should seek to emulate the one that President George H.W. Bush followed during the Gulf War in 1991: a defeat of the enemy army and expulsion of the tyrant’s forces from the territory he sought to conquer.

Once this is achieved, American policy should shift (and force Ukraine to do so as well) and follow Churchill’s dictum that in peace, the victorious party should follow magnanimity towards the defeated. One possibility of that magnanimity is that Crimea could hold a referendum, overseen by the United Nations and international observers, to decide if its political future should be as part of Russia or Ukraine. This might help save Russian pride and reduce the possibilities of an even more revanchist Russia in the future.

Another area of improvement in U.S. support, for example, should be increased oversight and a special committee of Congress to work with the Ukrainian government to prevent fraud, waste, or abuse. Something similar to the famous Truman Committee, which operated during  WWII. Yet, it must be emphasized that the purpose of helping Ukraine should be victory over Russia. Since this is still not close to being achieved, it is not time to imagine a post-war world.

How are American interests involved in this war? First, it must be said that the defense of what some call the “liberal world order” and American interests are highly intertwined. If by liberal world order we mean the principles of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, such as that territorial changes should be under the wishes of that territory’s people, self-determination, free and fair trade, and freedom of the seas, then that is worth preserving. The necessary precondition for these things is the nation-state, which as a rule, needs to be sovereign, which means having its internationally recognized borders respected by its neighbors.

These principles were learned because of World War II. And they have kept the geopolitical world relatively stable. One further principle learned in the aftermath of World War II is that appeasement from a position of weakness never works. As such, the prudent thing to realize is that Putin and Xi Jinping only understand strength and deterrence.

How are these apparently abstract lessons part of American national interests? First, since America built the world order, American supremacy endures partly because of what G. John Ikenberry describes as the system the U.S. made. As Ikenberry notes, “The global order the United States has built since the end of World War II is best seen not as an empire but as a world system, a sprawling multifaceted political formation, rich in vicissitudes, that creates opportunity for people across the planet.”

Nonetheless, the principles discussed above endure thanks to American power. As Robert Kagan has noted, only the American economy and military might preserve that liberal world order. As such, the liberal world order is merely another way to describe America’s supremacy. It is American economic and military power that preserves peace amongst the great powers. It is American hegemony that has spread free markets and principles such as the rule of law, human rights adequately understood, and the establishment of sovereign nation-states. Of course, there are many challenges to America right now. The United States, for example, needs energy independence, a secure border, and balanced budgets to remain the free world’s leader. 

Nonetheless, it is a tragic reality that international systems usually imitate the strongest power. How American interests are served by isolating and giving up supremacy to Chinese communism or Russian expansionism is not easily understood. As Robert Kagan notes, when the 19th-century British-led liberal world order began to collapse under the German onslaught of the world wars, the United States intervened to preserve it since its fall would harm America’s well-being. In short, one must understand that the liberal world order does not benefit only America’s allies and other nations but that it also has immensely benefited the United States and continues to benefit Americans to this day by allowing trade, the free navigation of the seas, amongst other things.

In other words, the American way is much better than the alternatives of despotic governments at home and expansionist tyrants abroad. Moreover, it cannot be denied that, in part, American nationalism and identity are heavily influenced by our founding values, which Americans, for better or worse, revere and consider to be universal. Those values also guide and serve our national interests. They are an essential tool, which has been the basis of why America defeated the great evils of the twentieth century and hopefully will do so again in the twenty-first.

A realist might also add that there is no other great Western liberal power to take the place of the United States. It is up to America to survive these challenges, thankfully not alone but with allies. Therein lies the importance of NATO and strong alliances with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and India. Of course, it is essential to realize that not all societies are liberal democracies that share our values. Some authoritarian regimes are and will be our allies of convenience (such as Saudi Arabia). Sometimes in life, and perhaps even more so in geopolitics, it is necessary to tolerate lesser evils for the greater good. This does not, of course, mean one should admire dictators or praise their regimes. It does mean that, as Jeanne Kirkpatrick explained, these regimes often must be tolerated and worked with rather than seeking to overthrow them callously. As Kirkpatrick also said; usually, pro-American autocracies can be pressured by America to transition to more liberal societies and even democracies. These were the cases of Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, and Portugal, for example. On the other hand, when these regimes get overthrown (sometimes with America’s aid), what comes next is usually much worse and virulently anti-American. Such as the examples of Cuba, Venezuela, or Iran.

With all its problems, Ukraine has demonstrated itself as an American ally. How precisely is it realistic and better for American interests for Ukraine to be wiped out in favor of Russian annexation or a pro-Kremlin regime, which means an anti-American regime? It defies logic. Additionally, an argument claims that if Russia wants  endless war in Ukraine, the United States should oblige and let them deal indefinitely with Ukraine. This might be true somewhat, but if we abandon Ukraine and Ukraine loses, even if Russia finds the Donbas to be cursed and annexation too high a price and difficult a task, it will still lacerate the principle of respecting a nation’s borders. It would entail an erosion of self-determination and nationalism, which could also send the wrong signal to other regimes worldwide, such as Iran, China, or North Korea.

Realism must be based on facts. Well, the reality is that for the moment, Russia and China are aligned together against the U.S., the Free World, and its allies. Therefore, we must think about two fronts of conflict, as we have before, and how to win. First, we need to expand and strengthen our alliances worldwide (hence the importance of adding Finland and Sweden to NATO, for example) and increase defense capabilities while also dealing with complicated issues domestically. How will America do this? These are essential questions, and the answers will require complex thinking and difficult choices.

If Ukraine loses, then America will be on the defensive once again. If Ukraine loses, then the world order will begin to crumble. If Ukraine loses, then America’s enemies and the enemies of freedom will be emboldened everywhere. It is hard to see how that would serve American interests. Ukraine can win with help from the West. However, suppose the isolationist instinct takes over and becomes dominant in American politics. In that case, only defeat, tragedy, and worse will come in the long run. As the historian Andrew Roberts said, “To take and hold a vast empire might be a legitimate cause for pride; to return it for want of personnel, resources, morale, money, and willpower—let alone over political ideology—should only be grounds for grief.”